somalia toxic waste dumping

Starting from 1989 and continuing for at least 15 years, perhaps much more, millions of tonnes of toxic wastes were dumped in the long-stretched coastal areas of Somalia, as confirmed in several reports of United Nations agencies, leading NGOs and independent investigators.

While attention is currently focused understandably on the devastating impact of drought, hunger and malnutrition in endangering the life of several hundred thousand people in Somalia, at the same time it should be remembered that the impact of these toxic wastes continues to be a serious threat to health, environment and livelihoods and this has probably spilled over to some neighboring countries.

A figure of around 35 million tonnes of toxic wastes being dumped in Somalia has been mentioned in the past, with just two deals accounting for 10 million tonnes. These include chemical and industrial wastes, hospital wastes and most threatening of all, nuclear wastes.

Although this issue had been highlighted earlier too, but most attention was drawn at the time of a devastating tsunami in 2004 which led to many sealed as well as leaking containers full of toxic wastes being tossed far and wide from their hidden places and hence coming to public notice more easily. An Investigation by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) followed which confirmed large-scale dumping of toxic waste. The UNEP report stated that the dumping of toxic and harmful waste is rampant in the sea, on the shores and in the hinterland.  Subsequently the UN Envoy for Somalia Ahmedout Ould Abdullah also confirmed that huge amounts of toxic wastes including nuclear wastes had been dumped in the coastal areas of Somalia. Greenpeace released copies of contracts which had been signed by two Italian and Swiss companies with a Somalia leader claiming to be ‘President’ in a country torn by strife. These contracts, which were discussed in the European Parliament, appeared to give permission for disposing of 10 million tonnes of toxic waste in return for a payment of 80 million dollars, at a rate of 8 dollars per tonne, which could be compared to the costs of around 1000 dollars for disposing of a tonne of waste being quoted in some western countries. Other estimates have also mentioned very high profit margins.

These attracted mafia elements to this trade, as pointed out also by senior UNEP official Mustafa Talbo who mentioned the possibility of firms mentioned in contracts being fictitious or front entities to carry out the tasks of bigger companies in collaboration with mafias.

In this context it has also been mentioned that the mafia elements were involved in gun and arms supplies to Somali warlords or authorities and these arms were also being supplied in exchange for permission or facilitation for dumping toxic wastes. The people of Somalia were left to suffer from both sides of these deals—proliferation of arms on the one hand to fuel civil strife and the dumping of toxic waste to destroy health and environment.

In the coastal belt and particularly closer to Hobyo and Benadir, several health problems were reported which were much in excess of normal levels—respiratory infections, mouth ulcers, bleeding, abdominal haemorrages, skin infections. In local circles the appearance of a condition locally called kadudiye (shrunken body), characterized by pain, fever and immovable limbs was talked about.

Zainab Hassan, a researcher and environmental lawyer from the USA, noticed many cases of birth defects (including absence of limbs) and cancers in the affected areas. An Italian journalist Ilarpia Alpi and her cameraman who went to Somalia to investigate several aspects of toxic dumps were killed.

There were several reports of fish and other sea and coastal life forms being adversely affected. The livelihood of several hundred thousand fishers, and those in related livelihoods, inhabiting the long coastal belt, was badly affected and they were exposed to many health hazards in the short and long-term. With the rising and advancing sea in times of climate change, several more toxic dumps can merge with water.

Some reports have suggested that all this became an additional reason for some coastal people to turn to piracy, or piracy related activities. In fact pirates or those speaking for them also blamed these toxic dumps for many problems of people. This was highlighted when pirates hijacked MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship which it turned out was carrying tanks and sophisticated weapons for strife-torn Sudan.

It cannot be stated with certainty for how long this dumping of waste continued, and when it ended, if at all. What is much more certain is that it has left behind huge devastation which will continue to inflict serious harm on health, environment and livelihoods. Despite a lot of evidence becoming available, a comprehensive international investigation was not carried out at both ends, the supply point of waste and the deposition point of waste. Such an investigation was needed to expose all dimensions of this extremely harmful practice of toxic dumping in other countries which is by no means confined to Somalia.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Planet in Peril and Man over Machine.


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